[Originally written on 1/16/2013]
How do people from the US spend their time? As a US citizen traveling abroad, I am always curious about how we are perceived, and I have found that, in general, US Americans spend their days doing two things: eating and working. If you are from California you might also surf.
While the perception that US work life is all-consuming has likely been propagated by planefuls of businessmen and -women jetting off to their next conference, or by TV shows in which the protagonists rarely leave the workplace, I don’t think anyone can deny that this generalization is based in fact. I have to ask: when did the life of the “average American” become defined by his or her chosen profession? When did the phrase “my life is my work” (or vice-versa) become so commonplace?
I recognized the bizarre nature of our relationship with work yesterday when Lolo, one of our drivers and guides, asked me to translate some common conversational phrases into English. At “qué es tu carrera?” I had to pause. It sounded foreign to my ears to say “what is your career?” or “what is your profession?” “What is your occupation” sounded overly stiff and formal. My teammate Sarah and I looked at each other, realizing simultaneously that in the US, the most common way to ask about someone’s work is to ask, “what do you do?”
Relaying this to Lolo, we were met with a look of bewilderment. “You can do anything. How will they know what you’re asking about?” He wondered. We assured him that if you were to stop a stranger on the street in the US and ask this very question, he or she would know exactly how to answer. And Lolo was right…that’s a little messed up.
Here in El Salvador, any one person might have a million answers to that question, and they might change from moment to moment, encompassing a wide range of identities. Yet each would be as appropriate as the last. The people that I have gotten to know here work just as hard as their US counterparts—just ask Lolo—yet they are not defined by their occupations. Rather, equally important are those moments outside of work: stopping to chat with a neighbor, lingering over lunch with the family and yes, taking a daytime nap in a hammock. In fact, there are hammocks hanging everywhere for that very purpose.
The irony here is that a part of our reason for being in El Salvador is to work, and we have been working A LOT. Not to mention that all of us are currently in school, learning to develop professional expertise, and hoping for long careers in our chosen fields. Even so, I hope that rest of the team, like me, has taken the time to enjoy the flourishing “hammock culture” of El Salvador. In other words, to learn to let life slow down a little, and enjoy the small pleasures that each day brings, as the Salvadorian people do. I already know what my souvenir will be upon leaving the country: my busy student’s life back in Monterey could use a nice hammock.